If artworks from other European nations could talk, they would say this about The Art of Hungary: “Tell me something I don’t know about.”
For the past three months, the ongoing four-in-one exhibition at Boca Raton Museum of Art has done its best to define the artistic qualities of a country more closely associated with war than artistic creativity. Before we think of Harry Houdini or Franz Liszt or Bela Lugosi, Josef Stalin comes to mind. Instead, the big realization drawn from the show closing Jan. 8 is that The Art of Hungary could be the art of any battered country — just as long as that country has seen oppression, revolutions, mass graves and has had to reinvent itself.
The closest thing to a distinctive sense of Hungarianness is provided by Sylvia Plachy’s photographs and a neighboring selection of 20th-century Hungarian photographs showing the various photographic tendencies that emerged during and after World War I.
Born in Budapest in 1943, Plachy fled with her parents to Austria by train after the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. She was 13 years old. Before she could adjust to her new home and language, the family moved again. This time, they settled in Union City, N.J. A few years later, the former Village Voice photographer and New Yorker magazine contributor began attending Pratt Institute. It was that first trip back to Hungary in 1964 that sparked her successful career, which includes receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1977, and being in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum and Houston Museum of Fine Arts, among other institutions.
Her nostalgic prints feel like a tribute to a gray childhood and poetically document locals at pubs, pools and waiting in line for bread. Also depicted are streets that got renamed and balconies that once witnessed the marching of tanks and uniforms before they witnessed the symbols of Soviet Communism come down. A photograph from 1993 titled The Worker and Other Displaced Statues sees the fallen statue of a laborer abandoned among concrete blocks and electric towers. Displacement is a concept the photographer knows well. The relocations and interrupted assimilations made verbal communication not her forte. Photography gave her a voice, though it did not return a sense of belonging.
“By now I’m a stranger in Hungary as well, and a bit of an outsider everywhere else, but I’m at home with that,” Plachy wrote in her statement.
Papiermaché Stalin (1989) is another striking image capturing the moment before a Stalin statue is removed using a rope around its neck. Plachy shows us the illuminated back of the gigantic statue while a tiny figure on a ladder approaches. There are some amusing moments too, such as the 1990 photograph featuring six men wearing swimming and baseball caps while they play and observe developing chess matches at the Széchényi Pool in Budapest.
The Hungarian Connection is one of the four ongoing exhibitions collectively representing The Art of Hungary but not the only one showing us the ghosts of Hungary’s past. A group of about 30 photographs by known Hungarian photographers such as Robert Capa, André Kertész, László Moholy-Nagy, does the same job although it is less intimate than Plachy’s selection.
The modern component of the show, Szilárd Cseke: Gone Too Far, manages to capture the physical and emotional struggle of refugees around the world with ping-pong balls, electric fans and neon lighting. The interactive installation titled Good Shepherd consists of a plexiglas maze resting on a table, from which balls keep dropping. Is it by design? Upon closer inspection, we notice that despite being pushed by the air from the ventilators, the balls occasionally fall through a hole that has been left clearly exposed on the surface. This is no accident. The bumps and falls represent the common obstacles faced by any immigrant.
The brilliant concept is a product of Cseke’s imagination. The Hungarian representative to the 2015 Venice Biennale and Munkácsy Prize winner has dedicated many installations to the themes of migration, discrimination and identity using found objects and ephemeral industrial materials. The only unrealistic notion we see in his Good Shepherd piece is that viewers are allowed to return the fallen balls to the forced race — if only as many people were willing to lend a real hand.
His Dual Identity piece follows a large white ball traveling back and forth inside a long translucent tube. Once again, the object’s path has been pre-determined and its limited movement assisted by fans positioned at both ends. This time, there is no escape or accidental fall. The motion symbolizes the to-and-fro of political opinions in Eastern Europe.
Cseke traveled from Budapest to construct the new playful installation, which is purposely set up under cold industrial light to mimic the artificial environments where we spend most of our modern days.
From the turn of the century to the present, Hungary has produced art that is colorful, dark, abstract, modern, traditional, romantic, cold and warm. In other words, an art that is no different from that of any other country with a rich and painful past.
If you doubt it, check out the landscapes, still lifes, portraits and nudes on loan from the collection of Nancy G. Brinker, former U.S. ambassador to Hungary. The selection of Hungarian masterpieces, titled Hungarian Art: A Century of Rebellion and Revival, offers a diverse range of styles (including fauvism, cubism, and expressionism) produced by Hungarian artists from the late 19th century to the collapse of the Soviet era. Brinker began her collection shortly after arriving in Hungary after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
It now spans more than a century and is one of the largest art collections outside of Hungary. Included in the selection is prominent painter László Fehér’s 2004 portrait of Brinker.
The Art of Hungary, through Jan. 8 at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. Admission: $12. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. first Wednesday of the month; 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Closed Mondays and holidays. Call 561-392-2500, or visit www.bocamuseum.org.